Participatory Learning and Action — and how to use it
DRAWING DIAGRAMS IN THE SAND might not appear to have much to do with working with people on a design project or in international development, but it is a way that communities and participants can take a central role in projects.
Diagramming is one technique among many that make up the Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) toolkit, otherwise known as Participatory Rural Appraisal or Paticipatory Appraisal.
Call it what you will, PLA invlves people in needs analysis planning, training, project design, monitoring and evaluation that make up the project cycle. Using PLA, field workers familiarise participants with the process then allow the participants themselves to develop the needed information. With the process carried out by the participants, the role of the field worker becomes that of facilitator.
One advantage of PLA in an international develpment context is that the techniques selected can be adapted to literate, semi-literate or illiterate paticiants.
The critical skill of people using PLA techniques is to be able to select and adapt techniques most useful in their particular contexts.
Matrices, tables, models mapping
In the PLA toolkit there are many tools used to derive information. Four of these are:
- the matrix — think of a matrix as a grid in which information is recorded
- the table — a set of columns in which information is recorded
- models — a three-dimensional representation of a landscape modeled in sand or soil
- mapping — the drawing of a field map on a blackboard, paper or in the soil.
When a model maps a village, landscape area or territory, models and maps essentially become the same thing. A field map is made only roughly to scale and locates features such as buildings, movement routes, land ownership, agricultural fields, streams, steeper terrain, forest etc so that discussion can take place and decision made.
In the field, models and maps can be made on the ground. Alternatively, information might be drawn up on a flipchart or blackboard.
The uses of information
Information is recorded in matrices, tables or as models and maps so it can be used:
- as baseline information in project planning
- in project monitoring and evaluation where comparative information is collected; new information is compared to baseline information collected at project planning to give an idea of how the project has progressed.
The latter point makes clear the necessity of collecting information on the situation at project start-up.
Preparation — collect local materials
Before you start the information collection process using one of the above-mentioned techniques, collect local materials to use as markers.
These might include seashells, coconut halves, stones, sticks etc. They will represent objects such as crops, houses etc.
Make a permanent record
It is important for trainers, field workers or the design team to record information as a permanent record. This can be done by writing it down on paper, perhaps drawing the matrix or map on a page and labeling it adequately. Photographing the map or matrix is an alternative or, perhaps, a supplementary means of documenting the information.
Whatever the type of information to be defined, a systematic approach and clear explanation of how the process works is are necessities.
- Locate a suitable place to run the exercise
- Collect local materials to use as markers.
- Communicate the aims and the process to participants:
- explain clearly what the group is to do and how it will be done
- appoint a documenter to make a permanent record on paper of the information collected
- appoint a facilitator to lead the process; this could be a member of the project team or a participant previously familiarised with the process.
When our TerraCircle team carried out field work a Takwa village on North Malaita, Solomon Islands, we had a project team member then in training lead the process.
Draw up the matrix or table
The matrix or table must be large enough for people to stand around and see clearly.
Mark the information categories across the horizontal and vertical axes.
Identify the information
Facilitate the information collection process.
To identify the health, wealth or other indicators of social, family or personal wellbeing.
- a matrix is created and the information categories needed agreed upon
- indicators of wellbeing are placed on the vertical axis; social groups along the horizontal axis
- ranking is done by placing a varying number of markers within the matrix at the intersection of the group being assessed and the indicator — more markers for higher values, fewer for less.
Trend analysis matrix
To track changes to a resource or community over time to identify the trend taken — ie. is it increasing, declining, stable?
The trends analysis matrix is useful when you need to identify factors affecting crop productivity, the availability of adequate food, landuse, village population changes and community health.
Draw a matrix on the ground, paper of blackboard, then:
- list resources to be tracked on the vertical axis
- list appropriate time periods, usually in years, along the horizontal axis
- found objects are used to denote quantity/qualities being tracked and to indicate trends such as decrease, stability or increase; place more marker objects in the matrix to indicate increase, fewer for decreased availability.
Crop rotation matrix
To identify the time of year when crops are planted in different fields to avoid the overexploitation of soil nutrients by particular crops.
- a matrix is drawn or laid out on the ground
- crop types are plotted along the vertical axis after being grouped into categories of leaf crop, grain, fruiting vegetable, other vegetables etc
- months or seasons are noted along the top horizontal axis
- the times when the crops are rotated into different fields are plotted in the matrix.
Plant importance matrix
This is a ranking matrix in which the relative importance of crops to the local diet or to the local market is identified.
The matrix also identifies the availability of crops and identifies crops with unmet demand and those with potential for increased production and which may represent a market opportunity.
Make a matrix with he vertical axis listing the crops, then:
- at the top of the horizontal axis, make heading of crop importance — eg. very important (staples or crops with high value to the local diet or with high market value), less important, minor importance
- along the vertical axis mark the seasons or months, availability, crop importance and other information thought relevant
- markers are placed in the matrix to identify the importance of each crop, then a different marker is used to identify availability at the local market
- discuss the information collected and identify crops for which demand is high but which do not grow well locally and that are sometimes unavailable through the local market
- identify crops that are plentiful and that could be sold either unprocessed or with value-adding processing where there is demand; there are market opportunities for generating income through satisfying unmet demand.
Tables, modeling and mapping
The table is a set of parallel columns across the top of which is written categories of information to be collected.
Tables can be used to classify information and to rank it according to importance. Information is ranked in descending order down each column for each category.
Models and mapping
The model or map is used to represent landscapes, agricultural fields, the location of natural resources, the layout of villages and other spatial information.
Models and maps might locate landuses, the classification of land depending on condition or topography to assess potential uses, distances walked from resource to village, land ownership.
Models might be used to demonstrate new ideas in three dimensional form, such as bunds, swales, contour planting, alley cropping and other land modifications to facilitate improvements to farming. They may be used to lot the locations of bush gardens, to estimate times of travel to and from them and the availability of land for their expansion.
The matrix, table, model and map are an adaptable set of techniques to visually record knowledge important to planning, monitoring and evaluation of project work.
They are potentially as useful in developed counties and in less developed where there may be a low level of literacy.
PLA has the potential to make the design process more participatory and it is easy to train people in their use.
Pretty J and others, 1995; Participatory Learning and Action — a trainer’s guide; International Institute or Environment and Development, London.